For the last decade, Skanu Mesz Festival has wandered off the beaten track of music and sound art, bringing down the walls between club hedonism and the avant-garde.
Skanu Mesz translates in Latvian to 'Sound Forest'. Festival directors Rihards Endriksons and Viestarts Gailitis co-organise the event to reflect the rich ecologies with this varied tapestry of sound, and it serves as a beacon of their engagement within the art and music scene. While this culminates in a weekend of performances held in the city of Riga, its reach extends beyond. Alongside the festival, their holistic approach manifests itself through a record label and a string of partnerships such as the Riga x Aarhus satellite event, a sonic exploration of new musical possibilities by Danish and Latvian artists. This desire to fuse and collide likeminded spirits is also echoed by SHAPE, the European platform promoting innovative audiovisual and sound art, started in 2015 by Skaņu Mežs and MeetFactory with the involvement of other colleague festivals. With an annual roster of artists and 16 European festivals involved, they strive to garner exposure for the more exploratory fringe of music.
Between survival and knee-jerk reaction, the more experimental artists can adopt oblique strategies in order to develop within a niche that is not relayed in the mainstream. These communities of interest are integral to the development of adventurous music but can have the perverted side-effect of operating within a closed circuit, preaching to the converted. Mindful that music is not solely an affair of genre fanatics swapping mixtapes, Skaņu Mežs sets out to celebrate curiosity and openness.
The festival launched with a statement performance: contemporary pianist R. Andrew Lee performed Dennis Johnson’s five hour long composition "November", a seminal work of minimalism experienced in the grand foyer of the Art Museum Riga Bourse. The remainder of the sold out festival took place in the Daile music venue in the city centre of Riga. Upon entering, one could immediately sense these walls are more accustomed to the resonating of musicals, cover bands and grassroots celebrities. This weekend, the crowd attending is near-impossible to narrow down under any specific demographic, a reassuring fact in itself and a signifier of what to expect from the festival: anything and everything.
Where Skaņu Mežs becomes especially significant is in that attempt to collide various ‘scenes’ and styles, noticeable not only in the curation of artists but also in the succession of the performances. Limiting the acts to a single stage, whether a logistical or creative choice, channels the audience’s attention and allows the juxtaposition of very diverse artists. Punishing sound systems and minimal string quartets co-exist without feeling contrarian. Club culture, improvised music and sound art are given centre-stage and balanced to ensure that the overarching feeling remains one of discovery and common curiosity rather than a pious statement from a scene celebrating itself.
We caught up with the organisers of the festival to hear their thoughts on entertainment, eclectic listening and adventures in sound art.
POSTmatter: Skaņu Mežs aims to bridge a gap between avant-garde and more accessible music. Do you feel that academic or high-brow approaches are detrimental to the promotion of left field music?
Rihards Endriksons: I think some of the most radical music in the world is still entertainment - not even mentioning the advanced forms of pop music that most adventurous music festivals nowadays work with. It's just that some entertainment draws you further out of your comfort zone or demands more co-operation from you. Going hunting or climbing a fucking rock or building plane models out of matches is entertainment no less than sitting in front of the TV, and, to a certain reader Ulysses is no less entertaining than a pulp novel. I think, within the program of the festival, there are kinds of music that can be compared to either of these activities (or are a mixture of some), it's just that, being placed side by side, the weekend is less comfortable both for the hunters and the sofa divers, in which case, hopefully, listeners of different kinds of music are exposed to each other's interests and values more. An increasing presence of a highly eclectic and open-minded listener is what we strive towards.
I don't think that more academic or high-brow approaches are harmful - rather the other way around (I'd be more careful around populist approaches) - it's just that they're not as interesting to us. Ideally, the contrasting musical impressions make it quite an experience.
PM: Skaņu Mežs objective is to 'offer alternatives to dominant views on culture', how do you feel these dominant views are imposed on the audience?
RE: I think that, quite often, we do this to ourselves and there is no Machiavellian figure trying to brainwash us or something: I mean, who really cares if you listen to Copland or Boulez... The internet, for instance, can be the most powerful tool for exploring music, but it can also provide you with tons of knowledge that you can use as an excuse to not be willing to get out of your comfort zone. You can also spend your time listening to seemingly forward-thinking or experimental music, but never get out of the very same comfort zone - a large part of it is so safe and predictable. There are no "mainstream/independent", "popular/experimental" frontiers nowadays - the lazy, easy choices exist on both sides, but there are (and always will be) sounds (or combinations of sounds) that are immediate and confronting or seemingly foreign to the human ear and sometimes also stimulate the intellect or just make us curious. An adventurous listener will seek these sounds out and get acquainted with them.
PM: A part of your programme integrates satellite events and sound art, which is not unheard of within festivals of a similar stance, but rather rare in general. Sound art seems to not be given as much exposure in a gallery context as other more visual disciplines, and adventurous music festivals such as yours often fill that gap. Why do you think that is?
Viestarts Gailitis: Maybe the blame is also partly on side of sound art curators as they themselves sometimes seem to detach sound art from the general contemporary art field. There is seemingly no reason why one shouldn’t speak of sound art as part of general art scene - and indeed the Turner Prize has been given for a sound art work, while at the Venice Biennale sound art works have always been present. However there are objective reasons for sound art landing in the experimental music field. Its material is ephemeral and therefore somewhat harder to be placed and sold in gallery. But apart from that aspect, the alliance between sound art and experimental music is quite natural as experimental music just like sound art is about exploration, contextualisation and increasingly also spatialisation of sounds.
PM: SHAPE, as a platform to promote innovative music and audiovisual art, and Skaņu Mežs as an event, are european at their core. When attending festivals abroad, the audience is often international and I wonder whether that is only because of a music niche community or whether a european identity exist within that art scene. The latest political developments within Europe tend to indicate a return to nationalism. Is that one of the dominant views on culture your are referring to?
VG: Nationalism is not something we had in mind specifically while stating about resisting dominant views. By dominant views we, I guess, instinctively meant whatever conformist, oppressive, lethargic and other destructive instincts mass culture can attain at any given time - including the present day populist and aggressive nationalism. It appears that experimental music possesses a certain modernist spirit - that is rejection of certainty and in that respect it obviously is European or a western phenomena to start with. Plus the individualist expression that seems to be western trait. That is, those positive european traits as opposed to the destructive ones you mention - such as populist nationalism.
Skaņu Mežs will conclude its 2016 activities in November with the concert of electronic music legend Autechre and Russel Haswell in Riga.
Skaņu Mežs is part of SHAPE, the European platform for innovative music and audiovisual art.